One of the great tzaddikim who lived in the early part of the 19th century was Rav Leib of Telz. The Vilna Gaon said of him that he was completely neshamah without a physical body. One time, an invading army entered the city and all the people fled. The army needed people to guide them to navigate the area and help them get to their destination, but there wasn’t a human in sight. They searched the entire area and finally entered the bais medrash, where they found Rav Leib wrapped in his tallis and tefillin, deeply engrossed in learning and oblivious to the world. The commander of the troops, who was also a philosopher, ordered him to get up and show them the way.
The tzaddik was not intimidated in the slightest. He remained wrapped in his tallis and tefillin and took his sefer with him. As he walked at the head of the brigade, his mouth did not stop reciting divrei Torah. When it came time to daven Mincha, he stopped and segued off the path into the forest. The soldiers started screaming at him, but their commander realized that this was a wise and holy man and must have a good reason for what he was doing. Perhaps he wanted to show them something important that was hidden there.
The commander followed him into the forest, observing his every move. First Rav Leib washed his hands with water from a brook. Then he stood by a tree and started to daven with a holy fervor as he usually did. As he proceeded further, the flame of ahavas Hashem within him became stronger by the moment and his face was illuminated with a light of simcha. The commander just stood there, watching his every move, astounded by this heavenly simcha that he had never seen before. He waited patiently for the tzaddik to finish his tefillah and once again they were off.
When they reached their destination, the people of the city came out to bring food and water to the soldiers. The Yidden were happy to see that Rav Leib was alive and well and was being honored by the troops. The commander said to them: “I envy this holy man. To receive his portion in the World to Come I can’t even begin to hope for, for he is so saintly and I cannot begin to compare with him. But I envy his life down on this world, for I saw his cheer and gladness as he was praying. Perhaps once in my 70 years, when I reached the height of my success, I experienced joy that is somewhat like this. This pious man is enveloped with this heavenly jubilance three times a day.”
Simcha is something that we all crave. We experience it from time to time on a happy occasion or celebrating a great accomplishment, but capturing it so that it remains with us constantly? That is a different story. Sukkos is unique in that it is the only Yom Tov referred to as Zeman Simchaseinu. The seforim say that the simcha that we experience on Sukkos infuses the rest of the year with happiness, and the more, the merrier. What is it about this holiday that evokes such jubilation?
“You shall dwell in sukkos for seven days, every native in Yisroel shall dwell in sukkos. Lemaan yeidu doroseichem…so that your generations will know that I caused the Bnei Yisroel to dwell in sukkos when I took them from the land of Mitzrayim. I am Hashem, your G-d” (Vayikra 23:42-44). This is unlike the exodus from Mitzrayim, where we are commanded to merely remember, because the Torah uses the word yediah, knowing that we dwelled in sukkos. Apparently, more than just remembering events of the past, the chassodim of Hashem taking care of us in the midbar, we must connect the sukkah with our own lives.
“It happened when Paroh sent out the people that Hashem did not lead them by the way of the land of the Pelishtim, because it was near, for Hashem said, ‘Perhaps the people will reconsider when they see a war and they will return to Mitzrayim. So Hashem turned the people toward the way of the midbar to the Yam Suf” (Shemos 13:17-18). Why would the Yidden be afraid of the war when they had the Ananei Hakavod guiding them and guarding them from any peril?
The Chofetz Chaim explains that the Ananei Hakavod represented the holy Shechinah dwelling amongst the Jews. With the Almighty as their neighbor, of course no harm could befall them. But having Hashem as a companion requires a very high level of yirah and kedusha on their part. Had the Yidden been led near the land of the Pelishtim, there was real danger of them being influenced by their ways.
The Pelishtim were known for their leitzonus, irreverence, and their immodesty, which causes the Shechinah to depart. Were the Yidden to be tainted by these bad middos, there was the real possibility that the Ananei Hakavod would leave them. In a time of war, they would be left unprotected. Instead, Hashem led them out into the midbar, far from civilization, in order for them to maintain their kedusha and have Hashem remain in their midst.
At first glance, it would have been advantageous for the Yidden to travel via the land of the Pelishtim. They would be near civilization, not out in a desert. They could acquire their basic needs by purchasing goods from them. But Hashem chose the other route for them. An important lesson from this, says the Chofetz Chaim, is that when we have a choice of two routes, one that is pleasant and comfortable but hazardous to our ruchniyus and another that is not comfortable but more favorable to our spiritual level, we must take the second route.
In the end, the Yidden were lacking for nothing in the midbar. They had the monn, the Be’er Shel Miriam, and all of their needs taken care of. Most of all, they had the Shechinah in their midst, the source of all brocha, and through this they became the Dor De’iah who enjoyed such fulfillment and happiness. Those who chose the path of least resistance to their ruchniyus are ahead not only in their relationship with Hashem, not only regarding their share in Olam Haba, but also in their general simchas hachaim in this world.
So when we dwell in the sukkah and remember that Hashem supplied all of our needs in the desert, we can also reflect on why we were there in the first place: to keep us apart, to keep us pure, and to prevent us from learning the immoral ways of the Pelishtim. “So that your generations will know…” This is so pertinent in our day and age. Look around you, out into the world, or maybe it is better not to. As Moshiach is getting close, the truth is becoming more apparent. If in the past one could fool himself into thinking that embracing modern culture was the key to curing all of the world’s ills, today it is clear that quite the opposite is true.
This is a great country we live in, perhaps the greatest in the history of our golus. We are accorded freedom and rights that allow us to flourish in Yiddishkeit and for that we must be grateful to Hashem and to the government that runs it. But the meaning of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the basis of the founding of this nation, has been perverted by a society that has cast off the yoke of fearing Hashem that has gotten carried away with self-indulgence, overstepping all bounds of decency.
How depressing it is to see how politicians and the news media shamelessly concoct new tales every week to defame the president and undermine the right of the people to choose their leader, one of the basic aspects of liberty. They are so invested in their personal power and prestige that hindering the welfare of the country is of no concern to them. And this is mirrored by their close ally, the State of Israel, where after two elections the government remains at a standstill.
Living in such a world, we can’t help but be affected by this insanity. This is why on Sukkos we sit isolated in our little cubicle, our oasis of ruchniyus, together with Hashem. We have special guests, the ushpizin, to grace us with their kedusha. We can enjoy pictures of our heroes, gedolei Torah, who adorn the walls and relate their ways, derocheha darchei noam, and we must resolve more than ever not to imitate the ways of secular culture.
For seven days, we dwell in this simple edifice. Seven days is the time it takes to purify ourselves from various tumos, defilements, mentioned in the Torah. After the Yomim Noraim, when Hashem purified us from our sins, we celebrate the seven days of Sukkos and internalize its lessons to purify us from the ill winds and the false hashkafos that surround us.
Well-known is the observation of Rabbeinu Bachya, who says that the word sukkah is a lashon of vision. It gives us a new perspective on life. It also gives us some respite from the overblown advertisements that glorify gashmiyus like never before and blurs our vision as to what is truly important in this world. And while we cannot dream of being a Rav Leib Telzer, who was a neshamah without a guf, we can internalize the lessons of the sukkah that will recalibrate our outlook on life to bring us clarity of vision that we must focus primarily on our ruchniyus, which ultimately brings us the greatest happiness. Yismach leiv mevakshei Hashem. Chag someiach to all.